Takefusa Kubo did not want to leave Barcelona.
He had been at the club’s famed La Masia academy for four years, and in that time he made a strong impression in part by learning to speak not only Spanish but also Catalan. One Spanish journalist described him as ‘a charming, polite young boy who was motivated and sociable.’
The ease with which Kubo transitioned to life in Barcelona made his departure all the more jarring. FIFA’s decision to punish the club for violating international transfer policy as it pertained to players under 18 meant Kubo was one of a number of academy players forced to leave as he was ineligible to play for the club. He returned to Japan in March 2015, where he joined the youth team of FC Tokyo.
“At first, I really didn’t want to come back [to Japan],” he told Goal.com. “I was so used to living there and also felt comfortable in the team, so I wondered ‘why?’.
Nicknamed ‘The Japanese Messi,’ Kubo adjusted to life back home quickly. By September 2016 he was promoted to FC Tokyo’s first-team squad — aged 15. He made his debut for the reserve team in the J3 League in November, entering as a halftime substitute. Five months later he became the youngest goalscorer in J.League history.
Although the youngster smashed records, he was introduced to regular first-team football slowly. In 2018 he was sent on a half-year loan to Yokohama F. Marinos where he made his first start in the country’s top division and grew as a player.
“Ever since he was exposed to ‘the outside world’ at Marinos his mentality has changed from that of a child to that of an adult,” Tokyo manager Kenta Hasegawa. “Physically speaking, he’d lose the ball or get knocked down last season, but now he can move the ball and create turnovers. It’s incredible to think about how much he’s improved in one year.”
In total, Kubo has just under 1300 minutes in the top flight, which is a solid return in a league where teenage players do not readily have opportunities to break into the starting XI.
Barcelona had promised to track Kubo’s progress back home. When the time came for him to return to Europe, however, it is claimed the Spanish giants baulked at the cost.
Instead, he joined Real Madrid, much to the chagrin of some in Barcelona. Their frustration was exacerbated by how the club initially lost Kubo, with club president Josep Maria Bartomeu highly critical of the policy surrounding the situation.
“I spoke to Fifa, and I told them that it doesn’t make sense that in every sport everywhere in the world you can give a bursary, a scholarship, to a kid to do sport, to give them the chance to go to a school to learn, except in football,” he told the Observer in May.
Since those comments, Kubo has made his debut for Japan at senior international level. The 18-year-old was part of his country’s Copa America squad, where he displayed several glimpses of his ability. The teenager’s blend of technical skill, quick thinking, and creativity caught the eye during the tournament, but he freely admits he is not yet the finished article, and based on his Copa America showings he will need to improve against opponents that use a physical approach.
Regardless, his arrival is seen as another example of Real Madrid’s shift towards signing top youth prospects, such as Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo Goes, and Brahim Diaz. AS stoked the fires between the two this week amid confirmation that Barcelona had signed another Japanese prospect, Hiroki Abe, by claiming, ‘the consensus within the Barça camp is that the whole Kubo episode has been Barça’s biggest mistake in a long, long time.’
That, of course, is not a concern for Kubo. The teenager revealed he used to watch videos of Eden Hazard to prepare himself for matches, but now he can lean on the Belgian for advice as a teammate. Kubo will begin his time at the club with the reserve side -Real Madrid Castilla- but early showings in training have been promising.
When he departed Barcelona in 2015 the teenager, then still a child, shed tears about having to leave a place where he felt so comfortable. Now aiming to forge a professional career with Real Madrid, if he can deliver on his potential at the Santiago Bernabéu, it will be Barcelona that are left shedding tears.